Anna and the Apocalypse

Directed By John McPhail

Starring – Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire

The Plot – A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven at Christmas, forcing Anna (Hunt) and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones. But they soon discover that no one is safe in this new world, and with civilization falling apart around them, the only people they can truly rely on are each other.

Rated R for zombie violence and gore, adult language, and some sexual material

POSITIVES

– Sensational toe-tapping soundtrack. Since this is a musical above everything else, the music better be right on point, and thankfully the combination of Roddy Hart and Tommy Riley gift wrap us a series of spectacles that never trail on personality. The songs in the film are not only catchy, but lyrically cerebral in that they channel the pulse of the character’s inner thoughts at that particular moment. When the music is exceptional during a musical, it pushes a film that much further, and the quality of production and performance in favorite tracks of mine like “Break Away”, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You”, and “Soldier At War” all could easily be played on top 40 radio right now.

– Extremely likeable characters. Most of the reason for the enjoyment of these charming teenagers falls on the shoulders of the exceptionally talented musically trained actors who portray them, but I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention how the film does a remarkable job of displaying their hopes and dreams. Hunt’s Anna is a dreamer we can embrace because we’ve all felt muddled in the shallow waters that we were born into, and seek new adventures somewhere just beyond the rainbow. But despite her name being in the title, this isn’t JUST Anna’s movie, as plenty of time is invested in her surrounding friends and family who the movie values equally. Even more so, the rest of the ensemble harvest a variety of personalities and demeanors about them that make you crave more of the delightful dynamic between them that hits its mark every time because of energetic chemistry.

– Stunning special effects work. It’s clear that the budget isn’t anything of blockbuster level here, as much of the zombie sequences limit the make-up’d actors in frame, however what little we do get provides enough bang for the buck in the areas of make up and prosthetics. None of the patterns of decomposition ever feel like they obviously repeat, nor do they struggle at capturing the scarring of blunt force trauma. On this subject, the film has no shortage of creative kills that surprisingly indulge us in the physical side of the red stuff, instead of computer animated like we’ve been trained to. This gives the film easily its biggest desire to be R-rated because the kills are performed in devastatingly invasive fashion, providing several scenes that will make you wince.

– Not afraid to take chances. Part of the thing that really floored me about the much more riveting third act of the movie is how it’s not afraid to put a price tag on any character who comes into frame. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it’s obvious not everyone makes it out alive here, but who we lose along the way will provide a couple of heartbreaking instances where it pleasantly tries to distance itself from the many survival films that came before it, and successfully so.

– Originality in lighting and set pieces. Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film is the presentation and backdrops that add a lot of fun to the technical aspects of the film. Despite being a brief 87 minute movie, the story takes us through a barrage of town landscapes and institutions like a bowling alley, a Christmas tree store, and of course the auditorium inside of the kid’s high school, and each of these presents a new series of adversities for our group of characters, allowing the ability to keep the action fresh in its creativity. In addition, each of these are highlighted by Christmas light style lighting that gives the scenes they accompany a distinct and familiar glow that effectively channels the Christmas season.

– Post credit animation sequence. Be sure to stay all the way through the closing credits, as we are treated to a few familiar scenes from the movie that are played out in zany animated textures. The animation used is almost pop-up style decor, all the while catering to familiar physical traits of the actors that close the gap between live action and animated renderings otherwise feeling so foreign. It serves as the perfect closed door on a movie that never struggled in capturing the fun and airy atmosphere that only a musical can provide.

– A breakthrough performance. Ella Hunt is no stranger to the silver screen, acting in over twenty films and TV shows to date, but it’s her work here that has allowed her to breakthrough the stratosphere to the other side of inevitable A-list names. As the title character, Hunt instills a combination of grief over the loss of her Mother, and ambition for something different to her predictable existence. Hunt’s angelically deep eyes and tomboy persona make her the kind of girl we all need in our lives, but it’s the transformation into this killing machine where it’s probably best we stay away. Well done Ella.

NEGATIVES

– One big disappointment. If I pointed to one thing weighing this movie down negatively it’s the undercooked humor that missed its mark nearly every time. I laughed twice during this movie, and I blame a lot of that on a film that so desperately wants to be “Shaun Of the Dead” without the confidence in material to understand its audience. I mention that movie because there are uncanny similarities in the two films, from something as small as zombie fake-outs in sound, to something big like near-identical humorous deaths. I wish the movie could’ve developed the humor muscle of the movie a bit tighter, as the lines intended to tickle fall flat at almost embarrassingly bad levels.

– No developed urgency. This of course changes during the pivotal third act, but so much of the film’s first two acts lack the kind of danger or devastation needed to understand the magnitude of this situation. This is where the musical designation might do harm in bringing together music and horror accordingly, as the tracks act as a pause button during the scenes of tension, feeling like an abused pause button by the characters that always allows them motivation in evening the odds. I could’ve used a death or two somewhere early on to keep these leads and the audience on their toes, but unfortunately you will be waiting until the final twenty minutes of the movie for things to get interesting.

– Hammered home final message. This is usually incorporated by spoon-fed narration that the film, nor us the audience need to understand the point, but here the producers of the film repeat a song from earlier on that is so clearly obvious that it made me angry for how little of confidence the crew had for me. The irony of the situation is satisfyingly evident without the assistance, and if they ended it just with that, the film could’ve bottled more of that positive energy that it couldn’t afford to give away.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Roma

Directed By Alfonso Cuaron

Starring – Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Cortina Aurtrey

The Plot – The most personal project to date from Academy Award-winning director and writer Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” follows Cleo (Aparicio), a young domestic worker for a family in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City. Delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood to create a vivid and emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst political turmoil of the 1970s.

Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and adult language

POSITIVES

– One man rock band. Far beyond just writing and directing this movie, Alfonso Cuaron once again submits another award-worthy effort for best cinematography of the year. Decorated throughout the film with a black-and-white canvas that brings a photographic sense of detail to each and every still frame in the movie, the film radiates with such gorgeous flare and depth for what is ultimately a colorless scheme. I am serious when I say that you could pause the movie at any chance and hang it up as a scenery portrait somewhere in your house, and Cuaron again paints beauty in a world of black and white ideals.

– A love-letter to Cuaron’s second mother. Whether you’ve read the backstory or not on the meaning behind this film, one thing is certain: You get a more than in-depth feel for how Alfonso views this pivotal person in his life and his movie. In his eyes, the caretaker is someone who takes a mental and physical strain, yet still shines as the glue that bonds this family together, putting their needs first above her own. What’s also delightful about this far beyond the surface level of this singular character is that the film serves as a much-needed reminder of a woman’s impeccable value in keeping a family moving. This is something shamefully missing from the majority of Hollywood pictures in 2018, but “Roma” more than documents every kind of struggle that a woman faces in holding down the fort, bringing with it a sense of praise and focus that makes up wonderfully for lost time.

– Cuaron’s channeling of the moment. Presented here for our delightful understanding is a combination of sharp sound mixing and cerebral camera movements that really paint a vivid sense of the environments they cover. Each change of scenery opens up with a collection of sights and sounds that really allow you to immerse yourself in the moment of this unfolding narrative, and give light to the kind of detail that only a person who lived this lifestyle can attest to. There hasn’t been a film like this in recent memory, that gives us presence to a film in the form of footsteps and conversations that resonate within it, carving out a technique of third dimensional sound that is riveting without being rumbling. Cuaron’s slow pan navigation to the left and right also soak up the wide range of emotions present under this one roof where so much is on display. This gives the film great replay value, as the magnitude of what’s taking place in conversation and action feels like too much to ever intercept in one lone sit.

– As for storytelling, this is anything but a conventional script, instead choosing to spend its time on a multitude of life experiences that boil together in one simmering pot. This can be hit or miss to anyone watching because the developing drama is slow and methodical, pacing itself out in episodic methods to make it anything but conventionally predictable. What’s more impressive is the magnitude of topics covered, taking us everywhere from marital troubles to a full blown college riot on the surrounding streets that is a wrong place, wrong time scenario if there ever was one.

– Zero distractions. The decision to include no musical tones or tracks to the film, other than naturally playing music during the scene, is one that I take great pleasure with. Cuaron as a director is someone who has a lot of faith in his audience, therefore he allows them to interpret the moment without requiring manipulative or forceful musical accompaniment that this film simply didn’t require. This also grounds the overall presentation in a strong sense of realism that transcends its designation as entertaining art, making us feel like we are watching a real family and their lives play out before our very eyes.

– Juxtapositions in tone. This is something that I would usually negate a movie for, but the existence of an environment that is every bit as uncomfortable as it is funny, every bit as endearing as it is bizarre, and every bit stressful as it is relaxing, all paint this ambitiously interpretive picture that hints that life is anything but one consistent flow. This proves that the material has many layers, but more than anything it’s in the personal touch with how these characters experience these life and attitude changing revelations where something so simple in material feels so complex in delivery.

– The definition of a passion project. It’s something special to see one of the very best directors going today to feel so inspired by an idea that he puts everything else on the wait list, and that’s what you have here. Alfonso Cuaron marketing this film primarily for Netflix is something that proves it’s not just another movie to make money on. Likewise, the harvested feel of art imitating life is that rare one in a million chance where the writer and director of the film opens up their mind and memory to give the audience a piece of their past that is often times glossed over in Wikipedia biographies. “Roma” is the perfect film for Cuaron’s masterful touch, and it serves as his single greatest work to date because that passion is prominently on display throughout.

– My favorite ending of 2018. There’s no huge explosions or shocking twist, so what did I see that left such a huge imprint on me? Heart. From the bonding of this family against all odds that makes one particular character finally feel whole, to the final shot mirroring that of the first shot of the movie, I left “Roma” with an overall sense of satisfaction and feel-good goosebumps that served as the perfect emphasis for everything I experienced. It’s honest in the fact that life itself still goes on, but it’s appropriate enough in the finality of its conclusion serving as the catalyst for what comes next for all of them.

NEGATIVES

– Badly needs a studio edit. While the film clocking in at 130 minutes wasn’t my main problem in this regards, the lack of intrigue or excitement during the dry and tip-toeing first half of the film certainly is. This makes “Roma” a difficult film to get into right away, as much of the unwinding screenplay feels like Cuaron’s home movies, where lots of excess fat can be trimmed. As I mentioned earlier, I appreciate a director who takes time to study and articulate environments, but this is done in several instances where the camera turns on long before our characters come into frame, making it feel like we are waiting for the movie to catch up to our encroachment of their home.

– No central protagonist. I know what you’re thinking: “It’s easy to see that this is Cleo’s story”, well not so much. While the film does follow her more than anyone, the characters of the film are drawn so thinly that we as an audience just tend to bounce off of all of them in search of someone to take command and floor us with a personality that makes us beg for more. No such person exists like this in “Roma”, and because of such, we’re asking much more from a talented cast, who while happy to oblige at this request, don’t fully make up for the lack of important rendering. Half of the characters are irredeemable, while the other half rub together in ways that had me searching for any slight clues as to how they’re different.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Favourite

Directed By Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

The Plot – Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A trio of award worthy performances. Most films are fortunate enough to contain one breakthrough performance that earns its film recognition, in the form of word of mouth, but “The Favourite” is fortunate enough to have three, a testament to Lanthimos’ tight grip on his characters. Colman adds enough dimension and complexity to this Queen that reaches much further than her being just another spoiled recluse of royalty. There’s an air of sadness and loneliness to her that makes her engaging, despite her endless riches that no audience can relate to. Weisz also marvels as this sternly plotting right hand woman to the Queen’s operations. She does so with very little physical interaction and no yelling during her long-winded threats, and it’s all capped off by Rachel’s cold measuring stare that lets you know an idea is always brewing behind this exterior. The show stealer for me however, is definitely Emma Stone, channeling a transformative performance that adds yet another layer to the young starlet. Abigail knows how to get what she wants, and her sponge-like perception to soak up the boundaries in every situation is what makes her every bit as cunning and deceptive as her counterparts in power.

– The fine use of natural lighting throughout the picture. Aside from Yorgos’ expected cold, greying cinematography that feels more appropriate than ever during 18th century England, the presentational aspect of dimmed lighting and lustrous shadows provides much artistic integrity to the creativity in every shot. This unflinching darkness enveloping these auburn reds and sunlight orange tapestries tend to follow these character for the entirety of the film, visually conveying the ulterior motives behind every act of kindness that only serve as table dressing. This decision articulately channels the cold and insensitive surroundings of the immense mansion, and gives way to filters of colorful expression that never compromise the focus of any shot.

– Lanthimos, the master magician of the lens. In his previous films “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, Yorgos used unorthodox camera angles and gimmicks to emit this layer of unsettling atmosphere that really allows the audience to immerse themselves in the interpretation, and we thankfully have more of the same here. Particularly in the use of fish-eye lens, the occasional inclusion feels foreign to the rest of its visual counterparts, allowing us these moments of valued focus to soak up the ever-changing scenery. Aside from this, Yorgos’ movements of the camera are always smooth and patient, never settling for handheld camera work that would otherwise distract from the artistic integrity of the portrait being painted before us. This tells me that this is a man who knows the best bang in every aspect of shooting a film, and “The Favourite” is easily his most technically ambitious film to date.

– A sensational game of cat-and-mouse. The rivalry between Abigail and Sarah in the film is easily the sell of it all for anyone who has seen the trailers, and it more than delivers on its pitch thanks to a combination of unpredictability and consequence that constantly raises the stakes. This provides plenty of examples of psychological and physical displays of power between them, and the film is wise enough to constantly keep them leveled evenly, so as not to sway the audience’s decision for who the Queen is better off with, one way or the other. There are many times during the film when the balance of power switches and unforgivable actions takeover, and it forced me to switch my opinion several times for these two dueling dames, providing emphasis for a circumstance so complex.

– Chapter title screens. The entirety of the 115 minute film is divided into these eight devilishly delicious sections, each numbered by Roman numerals, and supplanted with a pulled cryptic quote from somewhere in the film’s dialogue. Many films have been doing the storybook approach lately, but why it works so well for this story in particular is the ambiguity and double meaning of the quotes themselves, to constantly keep you guessing in terms of where this story will take us. There is nothing mentioned in text that ever remotely serves as a revealing spoiler, preserving the quality to constantly keep us guessing while giving importance to the value of episodic storytelling.

– Accuracy in wardrobe and costume design. Mark my words, “The Favourite” will earn an Oscar nomination in the wardrobe department, and the reason for this is the collection of rich Bohemian gowns and expressive makeup design that durably channel the era of England that it’s depicting. With a series of elegant dinner parties and Parlament courts under the roof of this royal mansion of frequent guests, we learn that no cent is spared in the fashion sense of production design, and more importantly it all stays consistent with the respective time period (Take notes “Robin Hood”).

– One thing that I love about Lanthimos’ tones in his films is his ability to channel this comfortable blend between comedy and drama that breeds a subgenre of its own. Considering the shocking and dramatic pull of the material inside of these twists and turns, I wasn’t expecting to laugh half as much as I did. This dry, caustic kind of wit is made for someone like me, who has always seen the charm in English humor that is otherwise considered strange to my territory. The expressionless deliveries of some of these lines occasionally require double takes to let the punchline reach the heights of the quiet surrounding it, and the lunacy of royalty while eating and dancing is more than approached on to give ridiculous emphasis to something that should otherwise be considered prestigious.

– Johnnie Burn and William Lyons riveting use of classical music. There’s a strong compromise here of soft time-honored pieces combined with modern day production quality that gives new life to the music that adorns the film, and makes for a racketing of tension to flow freely into each scene. There is one such number that got a bit derivative for how long its same three tones are repeated throughout the scene, but everything else is delivered with such thunderous volume and echo to make it feel like the music plays throughout the house, instead of just accompanied in post production incorporation.

– Thought-provoking in the way it incorporates provocative subject matter with historical figures of yesterday. I don’t want to give too much away, but a revelation about the Queen happens thirty minutes into the film, and changes the complexion of this cousin rivalry moving forward. What I liked about this aspect was how it’s approached in terms of its shock factor towards its delicate time period, acting as a sort of weakness for her character during a time period when such personal ideals were anything but progressive. Where it crosses over to psychological for me is thinking about the possibility that many royal figures were just like Anne in this movie, in that they died with their own kind of secrets in their minds.

NEGATIVES

– For my money, the film feels slightly uneven after the incredible pacing and blow-for-blow battle for leverage during the first half of the movie. Once this angle runs out of gas, the second half, and more particularly the third act, is left to close things up in ways that don’t feel satisfying, conclusive to the progression of the narrative itself, nor believable for the Queen considering what we’ve been taught about her. I understand the point of the film’s closing shot intention accurately enough, but it loses so much steam by the redundancy of the final act that you wish it would just cut to the chase already. It stretches out for what feels like miles, and serves as the only point during the film when I wasn’t having a blast.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-

The Mule

Directed By Clint Eastwood

Starring – Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena

The Plot – Earl Stone (Eastwood), a man in his 80s who is broke, alone, and facing foreclosure of his business when he is offered a job that simply requires him to drive. Easy enough, but, unbeknownst to Earl, he’s just signed on as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. He does well, so well, in fact, that his cargo increases exponentially, and Earl is assigned a handler. But he isn’t the only one keeping tabs on Earl; the mysterious new drug mule has also hit the radar of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates (Cooper). And even as his money problems become a thing of the past, Earl’s past mistakes start to weigh heavily on him, and it’s uncertain if he’ll have time to right those wrongs before law enforcement, or the cartel’s enforcers, catch up to him.

Rated R for adult language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Great responsibility towards the outlook of Earl as a person. One of the things that worried me during the trailers was the film trying to cast Earl under this light of heroic happenstance that was easily relatable to anyone watching, and while the film certainly gives its central protagonist a lot of unapologetic personality, he is anything but honorable when you consider the things he puts above those who love him unconditionally, as well as some of his unabashed speech patterns that carve out a borderline racist. Especially is the case with Eastwood serving as the director and star of the movie, it gives him great selflessness to take this character in the direction that mirrors that of his real life counterpart.

– A hidden secret. It’s quite intelligent and even remotely poetic that Clint uses his own real life daughter Alison in the role of his on-screen daughter Iris. While the film somewhat drops the ball on this element of the film creatively (More on that later), there’s no mistaking that the fire and chemistry that harvests between them makes for some truly gut-wrenching scenes of dramatic entanglement. I love when a director isn’t afraid to blend the worlds of life and film accordingly, and this instance gives the movie the kind of subtle creative nuance needed to bring out the best in scenes of importance.

– Poignant approach on the value and appreciation of family. There’s nothing subtle about this element even if you’ve seen the trailers, but the underlying value of what grows beneath the phrasing as the story transpires is something that adds great depth and personal identity far beyond that of words uttered in a trailer. No matter how successful Earl is, he can’t escape the magnitude of what he gave up in life to follow his careers, and there’s strong representation with this feeling in a majority of the film being spent with Earl, alone, staring out a window, being isolated from the surrounding world, with all he has to show for his choices. Hard hitting material indeed.

– Eastwood and Cooper carve out two respectably complex characters for completely different reasons. Aside from the film measuring them as equals in terms of importance to the story, each of them are easy to marvel at for how they remarkably play against type roles than they’re used to. For Clint, it’s being depicted as this weakling of sorts, being pushed around by those of higher rank in the cartel, leaving him often the victim instead of the power player we’re used to. For Cooper, he portrays this no-nonsense FBI type that he only hinted at in “American Hustle”, and manages to grip onto with much more confidence in this film. While the film features other big names like Dianne Wiest, Laurence Fishbourne, Michael Pena, and Andy Garcia, it is the work of Eastwood and Cooper presenting us a fresh side of two reputable careers that really keeps their cat-and-mouse game fresh throughout.

– Exceptional photography of the open road. Some of the wide angle lens shots in the film are breathtaking, proving Eastwood has merit when it comes to establishing a setting and vibe comfortably, all the while visually narrating us through Earl’s many journeys. The winding road shots put us right in the frame of mind of Earl without feeling like too obvious of a gimmick, and the in-depth look at some Midwest American landscapes contains food-for-thought in the film’s valued depiction of an old soul in an ever-changing society.

NEGATIVES

– Strange social commentary. As is the case with all Eastwood directed films, he deems it necessary to take big amounts of minutes out of the film to discuss matters that are on his mind, that mean nothing to the context of the script. For “The Mule”, it’s poking fun at gay relations, certain words being offensive for minorities, and the difficulty associated with using the internet. Each of these aspects literally come out of nowhere when they’re brought to light, and end up feeling like a series of great debates started by your grandfather. Ya know, the one who never admits when he’s wrong and refuses to grow with the progressing world around him. They are all matters that are never required in the film, and only make Clint himself look like a senile spud, whose filter probably should’ve been left on.

– Sloppy editing transitions. You have to look a little more carefully for this one, but late in the first act there are some horrendous editing sequences with Earl interacting with his newfound employers that feel like a first time job opportunity for someone fresh out of film school. I say this because the continuity of characters in frame is every bit as poorly telegraphed as the variety in angles displayed from scene-to-scene of focus on Earl. What I mean by this is that he will be itching his head in one scene, while pointing at his watch in the very next cut. Teleporting in place is an aspect I never imagined with a film like this, but due to some uninspired cuts in the film, we make the impossible possible.

– Strays too far from the family narrative. There’s a period of around forty minutes in the middle of the film where Earl’s family isn’t seen or heard from amidst all of this unraveling chaos, and this has tremendous impact on the dramatic pull of the movie that feels non-existent. Without Earl saving his money for a greater cause, his intentions feel selfish, leaving nothing of focus for the character hanging in the balance for us to understand his motives. Aside from this, it gives us nothing of breather between the fight for power of the dry driving sequences of Earl singing and the pulse-setting thrill of FBI strategy that are the constant back-and-forth of this grounded screenplay.

– Tonally bankrupt. If you watched the deceitful trailers for “The Mule”, you’ll be excited to see an edge-of-the-seat dramatic thriller with all of the possibilities and none of the predictability. Sadly, this film is anything but, as Eastwood’s direction instead chooses to make 80% of this movie a comedy of all things, leaving any kind of intensity for the vulnerability of drug trafficking on the editing room floor. While the comedy is effective at more times than once, I never wanted to watch this movie to laugh, I wanted to see a cross-country chase with the elements of a western subtly nuanced beneath, but unfortunately Eastwood’s fumbling focus leaves this story feeling miles from its destination. Likewise, the trailer also gives away what few moments of tension the film artfully crafts for itself, showing us the steak before the sizzle that easily goes cold because of the familiarity we are patiently expecting.

– Anti-climatic ending. The most important scene in any film is the closing moments that remind you of the greatness you just experienced, and leaves us with the extra emphasis of driving the intention of its material home. “The Mule” doesn’t have this, in fact its final moments are so remarkably underwhelming and ineffective that the music doesn’t start for five seconds after the credits show, so as to say that even the film crew were expecting more. The only emphasis this ending provided me was an outline for the single biggest disappointment of the Winter movie season, as I was anticipating this film almost more than any other, but was left feeling the wear and tear of a film that felt like a million miles.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Directed By Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Starring – Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld

The Plot – Miles Morales (Moore) comes across the long-dead Peter Parker (Johnson). This Peter Parker is not from his world though; he’s from somewhere else in the multiverse. With Parker’s guidance, Miles will become Spider-Man: and through that he will become part of the ever-expanding ‘Spider-Verse’.

Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild adult language

POSITIVES

– Comic book magazine come to life. There have been films classified as a comic book movie endlessly before, but “Into the Spider-Verse” is the rare exception that actually lives and breathes by this definition. Aside from the breathtaking cinematography that literally transfers the backdrops and landscapes of the comic book accordingly, the movie also brings with it some unique traits in personality that sets it above its kin of the genre. As an animator turned director, Persichetti instills on-screen text that reacts to sounds, on-screen text boxes that serve as the narrator inside of Morales’s mind, three-cut perspectives that radiate that side-by-side feel of a comic book dynamic, and of course the wind range of animation from each respective Spider-Man in the film, that cohesively bonds to feel smoothly in the same film or in this case universe.

– Entrancing visuals in animation. Everything from the variety of ever-changing set designs, including but not limited to a cyberpunk inspired 2018 New York, to the texture of the animation itself, feels every bit as authentic as it does transcendent of the screen, carving out that layer of comic book euphoria that takes precise expertise to competently master it. Sometimes the animation feels straining, like watching a 3D movie without the glasses, but it’s all intentional, as it echoes the vibes perfectly of comic book pages that sometimes lose a little bit of that focus in being the victim of a copy of a copy. But when it’s smooth in depiction, “Into the Spider-Verse” is not only the most beautiful comic book movie of all time, but easily the most beautifully textured film of the year for the knockout presentation that constantly raises the bar with each passing minute.

– Transformative voice acting from a well rounded cast. Shameik Moore is brilliant as the film’s central protagonist, vocalizing the combination of immaturity, fear, and daring nature that we’ve come to expect in the character, from Miles big screen debut. Moore himself is 23 years old, but excels because of a softer and gentler side to vocalizing that easily allows him to immerse himself in this teenage nerd of sorts. Likewise, Nicolas Cage is delightfully meditated as my favorite Spider-Man offering: Spider-Man Noir. His voice is unmistakable, but the smooth deliveries in the manner that only Cage can deliver makes him perfect for the role, and carves out a second animated role of the year (Teen Titans Go To The Movies) that should provide a rebirth for one of America’s most celebrated actors. Jake Johsnon steals the show as Peter Parker, and does so by giving us an older, depressed side to Peter that movie fans aren’t used to seeing. Johnson’s dry delivery and constant undercutting of Miles made for some of my favorite exchanges of the movie, and carved out a dynamic in chemistry between them that had me begging for more films between just these two characters.

– Like most Spider-Man movies, there is a twist midway through the film, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Between weak underwriting of the antagonists, as well as a story that was starting to lose steam, this reveal comes and sort of adds fuel to Miles’s fire, serving as the catalyst to motivate him to become who he’s destined to be. This twist actually did throw me off, and reminded me repeatedly of the one thing that comic books do better than telvision shows or movies, and that is the capability to make something so small feel so devastating to everyone enveloped in the unraveling narrative.

– Thunderous sound design. Although the narration deliveries are a bit mumbled and hard to hear throughout the film, the rumbling intensity of character perspectives allowed the audience several takes to investing themselves into the shoes of the character. One such example is early on in the film during a ride to school between Miles and his father, and we are treated to the faint sounds of cars whizzing by. Sounds small in effect, but I can’t tell you how many movies bumble this sound design repeatedly, taking something so honest as influence of environment and wiping it away to constantly remind us of studio interference. This of course isn’t the only aspect of this impactful sound scheme throughout, but just an example of how much time and effort went in to establishing an environment and seeing it all the way through to the finish line of the scene’s progression.

– Patience in storytelling. What I appreciate about the story inside is that it never feels rushed or forced to approach the same kind of familiar tropes that so many of these films are about. As much as this is a coming of age story for Miles, it’s also a family drama, and the elements of both of these slow cook, giving time to each to boil to the top once they’ve reached their respective intensities. Likewise, I also appreciated Miles growing into his capabilities as Spider-Man, instead of being great at them right away. This drives me nuts constantly in Spider-Man films because no one should be able to master these gifts without practice, and Morales’s story finally gives us insight, as well as concentration into the one who accepts these responsibilities.

– Doesn’t try to be something that it’s not with time allowance. So many superhero films are encroaching on that two-and-a-half hour mark with very little reason, but “Into the Spider-Verse” stays confidently firm at 108 minutes because that is how much story it has to tell. Because of this, the pacing feels smooth, never giving us an obvious moment of downtime or lag to the progression of the movie, nor the bottling of momentum that never manages to lose even a single drop. I was very much consistently invested in this story and characters, and this feeling gave off the impression that I was being re-introduced to the superhero genre all over again.

– The more you know. The film will appeal to fans young and old of Spider-Man all the same, but if you have followed this legendary character with more dedication, you will be rewarded for your years and dollars invested. Throughout the film, we are treated to an endless offering of inside character jokes, surprising cameo appearances, and a post credits scene that pokes fun at a certain meme that is all the talk of the comic book community. Aside from this, the humor is above average, and more importantly does so by providing observation at the honest, awkward moments of life, instead of catering to a set-up and delivery that can otherwise grow tiresome.

– Thrilling action sequences and set pieces that add to the intensity of the scene. Much of the fresh consistency comes from the variety of villains that adorn the film, but two sequences in particular stood out as fantasy in possibility that remind us why animated is the way to go for comic book lore. One such scene takes place with Peter and Miles swinging throughout the woods of what feels like an endless forest, giving us several intelligent uses of the web that a city setting just can’t accommodate, and the other is the film’s climax fight high above the city limits, at crossroads of the many universes we’ve been told about. Both of these scenes are great for their super quick arsenals of choreography that exchange like dance partners, but the true beauty and consequences of the latter gave us a finale with a familiar antagonist that fully realizes the Miles transformation.

NEGATIVES

– For my money, I could’ve used more development in the relationship between Uncle Aaron (Voiced by Mahershala Ali) and Miles. We’re constantly told what Aaron means to Miles, but rarely shown it, and I could’ve used a few more scenes to flesh out and truly feel the drama of something that goes down between them. Even if this is nit-picking at this point, this stands out like a sore thumb as the film’s most noticeable weakness, and I could’ve used a couple more scenes to magnify Aaron’s importance to the script and give the movie enough reason to reach for that two hour runtime.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Aquaman

Directed By James Wan

Starring – Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe

The Plot – Arthur Curry (Mamoa) learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world. Standing in his way is the leader of a dangerous army, led by Arthur’s brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson). Will the communicator of underwater life stake his claim, or will the wrath of the Seven Seas provide too much for him?

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some adult language

POSITIVES

– James Wan’s immense scope on this decades old property. After you see the film, you will have no doubts that this modern day maestro was the right man for the job, as the variety of geographical set pieces and enhanced world building gives new life to the property many deemed impossible to bring to the big screen. Wan spares zero expense when it comes to capturing the sheer magnitude of the world beneath our feet, bringing with him several rumbling action set pieces and believably textured C.G work as far as the eye can see, that is sure to silence even the loudest doubters.

– Consistency of tone is key. One thing that D.C has failed with at nearly every big screen release until now is the cohesive bond that appropriately measures humor and drama respectively. Thankfully, “Aquaman” feels like the blueprint for future successes here because it keeps each within their boundaries, so as to never encroach on the importance of the other. What’s most commendable is the humor doesn’t feel forced or immature to the kinds of personality that the characters maintain throughout the film. There’s this very accommodating sense within the material that doesn’t just cater to older audiences like in past movies, allowing kids the chance to enjoy the wonderment and light-hearted atmosphere that this company has been under-appreciating in its comic movies.

– Strong ensemble work all around from this talented cast. While this is certainly a breaking out vehicle for its main star, who exuberates enough brawn and bravado behind a crooked smile, I was surprised at the allowance given to the supporting cast as well. Heard possibly steals the movie in my opinion, carving out another female heroine for D.C in ways Marvel can only dream of. Likewise, Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson each turn in impactful dramatic turns, giving the franchise name tremendous value because of the sum of its big name parts. It could be easy for any of them to get lost in the ridiculousness of wearing these costumes or donning these tridents, but each actor brings with them a level of professionalism that makes them believable in their respective roles, transcending the familiarity of their appearances into the characters they are portraying.

– The single most beautiful looking superhero film of all time. Yes, I just gave “Aquaman” the honors over films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor”, mainly because the difficulty in capturing the beauty of something as dark and mysterious as the sea is something film just hasn’t captured until now. Don Burgess’s turquoise filtering reaches an astonishing level of consistency throughout, but it’s his enveloping nature of the above water landscape shots that constantly captured my attention and stretched the boundaries of imagination, making these two worlds truly rub together synthetically. Whether you like or hate this movie, everyone will feel like they just came out of a film where the pages of a comic book came to life, and that above everything else is probably the most important aspect to any comic book adaptation.

– Learning from mistakes. Where “Aquaman” takes perhaps its biggest step forward is the decision not only to not make this an origin story, but also not to cater to a future installment before attaining greatness with this current film. Sure, there’s certainly flashbacks to Arthur’s training growing up, but they actually serve a purpose in echoing the timeline of current day, all the while leading to a big discovery that shakes both timelines immensely. If you’re watching this film for a link to other D.C movies, you will be very disappointed, but I think that’s the proper steps necessary for finally gaining some traction of momentum for this once storied company.

– Hits and misses with the music. While I despised the soundtrack for this movie (A Pitbull cover of Toto’s “Africa”? Seriously?), the compositions of Rupert Gregson Wagner more than carried the load in this particular area. Wagner’s entrancing and wonderous musical score instills enough fantasy to the outline of the picture that really makes those moments of triumph truly pop. In addition, the thunderous audible presentation of the war sequences bring with them a sense of rumbling urgency that frequently hold your attention, and echo that of war genre films like “The Thin Red Line” or “The Patriot” that juxtapose that level of uncertainty on the screen.

– Creative touches in serene camera work. Wan is the culprit here once again, as his revolving scope around these important scenes of dialogue experiment in a way that truly allows the audience to move and immerse themselves in the thick of the water itself. This one-of-a-kind experience gives us several takes of textbook pasting in editing that made even me question several times if what we are seeing was long take sequences of long-winded dialogue delivery. It’s great to see Wan has developed a level of personality behind the lens that constantly evolves with each project, and never distracts or takes away from the beauty within the fantasy of the setting.

– Despite the setting being this fantasy realm of caves and creatures, the material itself is instead grounded in this family hierarchy, debating the bond of blood relatives in a way that everyone watching can relate to. Think “Game of Thrones” set in a world of fantasy and you’re already halfway there. What I love about this dynamic is it takes something as unfamiliar to us as the deepest darkest blue and withdraws from it this level of family drama that everyone has dealt with at one time or another in their lives. More than anything, this makes “Aquaman” certainly the most relatable and accessible to audiences enjoying one of these movies for the first time ever, and highlights yet another layer of brotherly bond that we thought we’ve seen enough of.

NEGATIVES

– Manta, while looking menacingly awesome in a detailed body suit, never feels like an important or vital part of the film because of limitations of time given to his development. This is also the only light pacing issues I have with the film, as every time we cut to his subplot, it all just feels like filler to reach the 130 minute desired run time and breath for the more important war that Arthur is building towards. I would’ve preferred they saved this antagonist for an Aquaman sequel instead, allowing them not only to properly flesh out the revenge associated with the character, but also proper time for Yahya Abdul-Mateen to shine in the role.

– Clunky dialogue. There are still problems in the script with characters speaking these cringing lines with such a lack of conviction. That’s not to say that it’s the actors faults, just that far too often these lines don’t flow as natural conversation, instead catering to the superhero demographic that literally forces these people to say these same tired lines. A great example is “The Dark Knight”, where no one speaks like a superhero or villain, instead sounding like a conversation between HUMAN beings, that transcends its superhero label. “Aquaman” shakes itself of all of these familiar tropes except for this one, and it makes for instances of unintentional humor that were distracting.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Bumblebee

Directed By Travis Knight

Starring – Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr

The Plot – On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence

POSITIVES

– Most of the reason that this film works for me is in the dynamic between Charlie and Bumblebee that transcends the conventional film friendship. These are two outcasts who feel alone in the world they both inhabit, so when they do cross paths it allows each of them to open up and shine to their truest potential. Charlie in particular, is still reeling from the untimely death of her father, while B feels like a prisoner on his new home, so we invest in the friendship between them because in turn each one of them represents what the other is missing. Likewise, this dynamic is something that has been missing from this franchise for a long time, and Knight guides along a movie about relationships that just happen to be on the eve of this robotic day of justice.

– Personal touches on the bots. Knight’s beneficial detail is something that certainly didn’t go unnoticed by this critic, as he gives the robots a more relatable side to human emotion and interaction that sometimes felt strained in past editions. Bumblebee’s facial registries are more clearly defined in this film, emoting happiness, fear, sadness, and worry as well as any of the actors in the film. The fight scenes are also better choreographed and full of more hand-to-hand arsenal than we’ve seen, making for sequences when we telegraph the devastation in each and every blow.

– 80’s aesthetic. It makes sense that this film takes place in the 80’s because that is when the Transformers were brought to life, and its influence over this film is something that makes for some truly enjoyable occasions when it’s done right. One such example is in the subtleties of the housing designs, complete with shag carpet and wood paneling on the walls that remind audiences of the setting of their past accordingly. This angle did sometimes feel a bit too on the nose, like when the movie “The Breakfast Club” pops on the tube, or a box of Mr T cereal non-chalantly pops into frame, but overall I think it’s done with enough vibrancy that rarely takes the attention away from the characters and situations of the screenplay. Which leads to…..

– There’s actual consequences. People died in the other Transformers movies, but we rarely ever saw it. “Bumblebee”, despite its small scale on the number of bots that adorn the film, feels like the most dangerous of the series films because it’s never afraid to get its hands dirty. There are three human deaths in the movie that even I thought were a bit risky for youthful audiences, but I commend a movie for documenting the ferocity and dangerous demeanor of the Decepticons physically. Because of such, there’s a bit of uncertainty to a story that would otherwise be predictably cartoonish, and I welcomed this responsibly stern take on depicting the perils of war without flinching.

– Plenty of laughs for the whole family. In addition to the physical bodily humor that was depicted in the trailers for the film, there’s surprisingly no shortage of hearty laughs between the interaction of our two main characters. What’s even more important is that these instances of humor never soiled the heart or the integrity of the franchise, instead instilling these welcome moments of breath in between the carnage and devastation that were the majority of the movie. My favorite is definitely a car vandalization scene, in which B gets his first taste of revenge against an antagonist who clearly messed with the wrong girl.

– Appropriate run time. This might be the single most important aspect of the film, because the previous Transformers chapters felt like an eternity when I watched them. Clocking in at a respectable 109 minutes, “Bumblebee” carries with it the smooth pacing and frequent transitions to constantly keep the screenplay moving at a pleasurable stride, making it feel unlike anything before. There was never a moment in the film where it felt lagging or derivative of an earlier scene, and because of such, this will certainly be the first Transformers movie that I will have no problem watching again.

– My favorite soundtrack of 2018. This could easily fall into the category of 80’s touches, but I felt it required its own mention because of the impressive collection of assorted artists that will earn my first soundtrack purchase of the year. Some of my favorite tracks of the decade, like “Take on Me” by A-Ha, “I Know It’s Over” by The Smiths, or “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” by Tears For Fears, are just a few of the tasty grooves that shine in their respectable moments, signaling the end of a decade of music that some still argue as the very best that ever graced our speakers. While it’s the 80’s that shines for a majority, stay during the artistic post-film credit sequence for an uplifting track called “Back To Life” from the film’s leading lady Hailee Steinfeld. It proves there’s nothing she can’t do.

NEGATIVES

– One character doesn’t fit. I will probably be in the minority here, and I certainly have nothing against this actor, but I felt Lendeborg Jr’s character didn’t work in the dynamic chemistry of B and Charlie. This is especially the case considering where this forced romance to the plot ends up by film’s end. Not only this, but it kind of takes away from the aspect of Charlie feeling like a loner until she meets this one-of-a-kind robot who completely transforms her world. Do me a favor if you don’t believe me: take every situation that Lendeborg’s character is in, remove him, and see if it changes anything at all.

– Choppy editing. This is sadly still a problem in the franchise, and frankly it’s not the soul reason to blame for some sloppy action sequences. The camera angles themselves are certainly far too close on the immense size of these dueling bots, but too many cuts in the sequencing itself is the most obvious enemy that these big budget battles spoil. The special effects themselves look great in the film, so there’s absolutely no reason why we should be using this ploy that hides negatives so frequently. Everyone wants to be “Saving Private Ryan”, but sometimes less pageantry of the visuals is more.

– Too many endings. There’s a shot on the Golden Gate Bridge that was the perfect conclusion to this film, but sadly it’s ruined by an additional three scenes that frankly don’t add anything more of substance, and doesn’t allow us to hit the credits during the most impactful moment. More than anything, it’s to link itself to the other movies in ways that should go without saying, but I would prefer if a movie this special demolishes any roads that leads it to the awful Michael Bay directed movies that kidnapped a lot of adult’s childhoods.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Mortal Engines

Directed By Christian Rivers

Starring – Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Jihae

The Plot – A mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop a giant, predator city on wheels devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang, a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action

POSITIVES

– Poignancy in politics. One thing that I wasn’t expecting in a movie that takes place decades ahead of our own, is the similarities in government that truly transcends the screen. Aside from Weaving’s power hungry antagonist being one who believes in a wall separating kind, the very ideal of this bigger, more advanced vehicle being a bully of sorts to its contemporaries is something that certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. There are these kind of a tiny sprinkles of thought throughout the film, and prove that “Mortal Engines” never settles for being another Young Adult conventional offering, instead going the route of thought-provoking social commentary that certainly gave me something to hand my interest on.

– A duo of delight. Weaving continues to demand bigger roles in movies, carving out an antagonist who is every bit deceitful as he is narcistic. When Weaving isn’t chewing up the scenery in every scene, his presence feels the most valuable, detaching us from this character who you hate to love and vice versa. The real surprise however, might come from Hilmar as the story’s lead. Like the fragile character she plays, the narrative takes its time in getting to know Hilmar, starting off as another dry female badass who takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But as the film progressed, I started to notice the layers and nuance that this young actress gave to her character, competently juggling enough tearful remorse and growth in reflection to make you buy into her investment into the character.

– Style eeks out substance. I mentioned earlier that there are some thinking points for the film, but for my money the allure of artistic integrity in the film is too valuable to be topped. During a season when films like “Venom” and “The Possession of Hannah Grace” make the nighttime look like a collection of colorless blobs, here comes a film that completely restores fate to what can be done in the shadows. The airtime battles are vibrant with moonlight ecstasy that radiates ever so smoothly against the fireworks of firepower that play in front of it, and the lighting scheme indoors takes on enough filters and dimensions to truly keep you guessing. If I recommend this film for anything, it’s the third act conflict that features a gala affair of everything I mentioned here.

– Effective camera work. I did have some problems with the concepts inside of the ships themselves, but Rivers as a first time filmmaker showed a lot of tinsel in movie magic in making me believe the immensity of its size. The revolving shots around this moving setting are luxurious and move at just the right speed to never slug down the movie and give the audience ample time to see what is transpiring behind every corner. Likewise, the action sequences are shot with enough urgency and articulate detection that you never struggle in hanging on to the many angles and characters inside.

– There’s certainly enough comparisons with popular films of the genre like “Star Wars” or “Mad Max” that the film evidently borrows from, but there’s also enough variation in the ideas to cement a name of its own. The concept of cities eating smaller towns (a process called Municipal Darwinism that provides an obvious metaphor for capitalism) is stunningly brought to life on screen, thanks to some truly extraordinary production design work never limited by its inflatable budget. The dynamic of land and air is also a unique take, allowing the film to press on through the ever-changing circumstances of the meaty two hour run time that would challenge the audience inside of a lesser quality science fiction film for all of the wrong reasons.

NEGATIVES

– Clumsy subplot juggling. This movie has no fewer than six on-going subplots from what I counted, and not only does this make for a challenging interpretation of who our intended protagonist is supposed to be during the first act, but it also limits certain narratives that easily could’ve used more time in development. My favorite subplot in the film deals with a male android and the relationship he has with Hester, and it just never felt fleshed out enough to warrant the sharp direction change that it takes midway through the film, and how it left this character feeling directionless. When you’re still introducing characters and subplots to the audience more than 80 minutes into the movie, you’ve certainly got problems, and I constantly felt suffocated by how bloated this screenplay truly is. Likewise to “Fantastic Beasts 2”, this film is overflowing with flashback exposition, giving way to many instances where this inevitable one-off film is compressing as much from the source material as humanly possible.

– A predictably convenient macguffin. Early in the film we learn about an object needed to suppress England’s power, and evening out the balance of the ensuing war, and to anyone paying even remote attention, the obviousness of the mystery that the film wanted so badly to present falls flat. It’s clear where this is going from the start, and it didn’t differ even remotely from where someone as inexperienced as I to these books predicted. I hate macguffins in movies enough, but when the movie tries to dumb down the material to cater to the audience, it shows its hand more often than not.

– Poorly rendered C.G effects work. There are instances in up tight camera angles where the computer generated effects feel passable enough, take for instance the visually descriptive depictions of England that I mentioned earlier, but as soon as they’re presented with a dominant live action opposition, you start to see the money was spent in less luxurious places. Take for instance the character of Shrike (live captured by the legendary Stephen Lang), who constantly looks phony with an illuminous green glow. I get that he’s an android character, but the design of his property is something out of an early 2000’s Tim Burton animation, and feels so out of place with everyone and everything he crosses paths with.

– Speaking of editing… It’s easy for Ray Charles to see what could’ve been left on the cutting room floor of this film. Often it’s the scenes and lines of dialogue that add nothing to the unfurling narrative, and stand out as an obvious cater to teenage audiences. One such instance involves our lead male protagonist, who has enough time in the face of life-threatening danger to stop and decide which jacket looks cool enough for him to sport. Keep in mind that this character isn’t self-serving or in love with himself by any stretch of the imagination. What makes it truly aggravating is that it’s instances like this one that makes it difficult to ever truly buy in to the supposedly overwhelming cost of what’s at stake, and twenty minutes less of these worst kind of Blu-Ray deleted scenes would serve the pacing of the movie well enough to not need the artistic merit to keep saving the day.

– Man did this movie want a shoe-horned love triangle like other Young Adult movies. There’s awfully sappy dialogue like “I will take away your pain”, a total lack of chemistry between Hilmar and Sheehan, and not a single scene between them that translates that growth in closeness that is present as the film persists. Maybe it’s the total lack of character build, or the one kissing scene between them feature an obvious stall by Hilmar, but I was never fully convinced, and the necessity to even include this sort of thing feels every bit as unnecessary to the film as it does diminishing to the strength of Hester as the female heroine that so many teenage girls need.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Directed By The Coen Brothers

Starring – Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown

The Plot – A six-part Western anthology film that acts as a series of tales about the American frontier, as told through the unique and incomparable voice of Joel and Ethan Coen. Each chapter tells a distinct story about the American West.

Rated R for strong violence

POSITIVES

– Artistic framing with the dreamy backdrops. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is possibly my favorite Coen Brothers movie, so it gives me great pleasure that they brought along cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to provide visual layers with the film’s color pallet, against a gorgeous Wild West landscape. This is the first film that the Coen Brothers have shot in digital film, so there are literally no limits that they and Bruno can take in emitting the true beauty in such a dangerous and unpredictable place. The wide shots during story progression scenes harvest the magic of a refined museum painting, practically begging to be seen on a screen as big as the sky, and the variation of colored lenses throughout the many stories, provided a unique take on the ranging tones in atmosphere that every story took us through. Particularly during the sixth and final story, we are treated to a decaying blue effect that patiently rises as the sun goes down, giving nuance to the very cold shade of discovery that our protagonists are feeling.

– Sharp tongue-and-cheek humor to counterbalance the permanency of the impactful violence. While the film takes us on many bends of tone that would diminish the danger in a lesser directed film, The Coen Brothers instead remain true to their guns, depicting the level of savage, hard-R violence to blend fruitfully with the fantasy of aspects like singing narration, and the strange thing is it all works magically. Never in the film did the latter diminish the quality of the lawless environment, nor did it ever feel out of place with the Coen Brothers usual indulgence of humorous awkwardness during trying times. In fact, there were many times in the film when I was caught off guard with the twists and turns because I was fooled into believing that everything would be alright, with a delightful song and dance.

– Clever uses of the music heard throughout. Particularly during the first two stories in the film, the musical score by Carter Burwell is instilled by aspects that are happening on-screen, that give the music a very realistic shaping to what we’re hearing. Such an example is in a piano during the first story that we hear and don’t see until the camera pans left and our piano player comes into frame. This overall provides a gentle immersion between the road of film and real life that many movies lack anymore, and it’s certainly an ingenious way to bring the elements of music to the forefront of the story.

– Impeccable sound design. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a film to watch with the volume turned up as loud as the set of human ears can physically take, and the reason for this is in the riveting, pulse-setting loads of ammunition that fly by our character’s dreaded dispositions. This gives the unfurling drama a sense of being as close to the devastation as an audience can muster without actually being there, and the screenplay’s unforgiving nature to any character only elevates this tension to fearful levels when you hear a gun come into play during a scene.

– Authentically transformative performances from the entire cast, that etch out a reputation for the Coen Brothers handle over the elements of their film. While there are familiar actors in the film’s ensemble, like Liam Neeson or James Franco, the direction does a strong enough job in getting each actor to lose themselves in roles that are different from their usual comfort zones and roles that we as an audience expect from them. It also doesn’t hurt that the wardrobe and props department fire on all cylinders, forcing you to do many double takes towards each actor that moves in and out of frame. Without question, my favorite is certainly Tim Blake Nelson as the title character. Nelson exuberates a slick demeanor and authentic Western accent with confidence, giving us such an alluring set of welcoming arms into this story, and constantly doubling down on the endless charisma. My only wish is that he played a bigger role in the film, but I will get to that later.

– Brilliant camera drifts that works cohesively with the element of surprise. There’s such a cerebral sense behind the movement of discoveries that constantly built the drama, that I couldn’t get enough of. Such scenes are rare in film, and often give us the feeling that we are actually moving a mile ahead of the characters in the movie at all times, and this movie has no shortage of them. While I could list a few for this film in particular, I will say that my favorite involved a big protagonist character who doesn’t realize he’s been shot in the head until the camera pans down and we see a bloody hole in the front and back of his cowboy hat. Aside from the startling discovery of losing someone so prominent to the film, the sequence is shot in a way that forces you to hold your breath and hope everything that you’re feeling isn’t real, when in focus we find that it is. Rhythmic drama at its finest.

– Storybook style narration that adds nuance to the elements within an anthology genre movie. Beyond the many things I mentioned above, it’s the incredibly small attention to detail that gave the movie a rich sense of production value, and transcended the qualities of being just another set of campfire stories. At the beginning of each story, we are shown an actual storybook, complete with author-style text and vibrant storyboard drawings to accommodate what is transpiring on-screen. It gives the film a great sense of re-watchability for being able to pause it and take it all in, and it’s a reminder of throwback anthology films like “Creepshow” that adhered to the gimmick.

– Little things Part two. There’s this strong authenticity with the dialogue and character accents that fruitfully replicate the particular geography and time period seamlessly, and instill this feeling that many hours were spent on perfecting the craft. Terms are used that you wouldn’t necessarily hear in modern day, and that factor plays prominently in the believability of what we’re seeing and hearing on-screen. Nothing ever feels out of place or wooden to the world the brothers create inside, and I respect a perfectionist’s stance when it comes to hammering home something that could easily go over the head of its audience.

NEGATIVES

– A glaring weakness. For my money, stories four and six were the obvious weaknesses of the movie for me, and gave way to a lot of problems that didn’t exist in the rest of the project. It’s in these stories where the uneven pacing begins to show itself, as the stories up to that point moved with such vicious urgency. For whatever reason, these two stories were given much more ample time with developing their stories, and felt much more redundant in events because of such. In addition to this, I was disappointed a bit with the title of the movie because it doesn’t exactly define what the whole film entails. Instead, the title really only speaks to one-sixth of the story, and provides emphasis for why these stories would’ve worked much better as individual episodes, instead of one cohesive project.

– Conservative constrictions. While not a problem for everyone, there’s nothing enveloped that challenges the cliche conventions of Western civilization that are decades old. Once again, white men are heroes, even when they’re killers. White women are delicate prizes to be defended and won. Indigenous people are “savages” who exist purely to terrorize the first two groups. The west is a place of shattered dreams, dust, and death. Turn page. Repeat. The end. You’ve seen it before; the Coen’s have no qualms about showing it again. Just one story of female heroism or Indigenous perspective could’ve satisfied me.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

The Possession of Hannah Grace

Directed By Diederik Van Rooijen

Starring – Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson

The Plot – A shocking exorcism spirals out of control, claiming the life of a young woman. Months later, Megan Reed (Mitchell) is working the graveyard shift in the morgue when she takes delivery of a disfigured cadaver. Locked alone inside the basement corridors, Megan begins to experience horrifying visions and starts to suspect that the body may be possessed by a ruthless demonic force.

Rated R for gruesome images and terror throughout

POSITIVES

– Ominous setting. In casting a majority of this story at the morgue, we get to play with shapes and shadows in way that very few other locations can give us, in terms of atmosphere. As we saw in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”, a morgue is the perfect place in channeling isolation and seclusion, and this film continues that thought process. While the film does commit the same cinema crime of limited workers at a hospital, it more than makes up for it in neon red lighting and what feels like never-ending hallways, to give the audience enough tease before the taste.

– Elaborate attention to detail with the make-up work. Unfortunately, most of Hannah’s joint-crunching movements are computer generated, but there’s still enough imagination and gory detail to the suffering of Grace to visually tell her history. The gaping wounds have a lot of depth to the concept of early stage scaring, and the protruding presence of immense veins act as a map to Hannah’s tortured psyche. This is an aspect to the film that won’t get enough credit, based on its limited documentation in the sloppy camera work, but if you look close enough, there’s plenty of range in the form of cosmetic appeal.

– Sound mixing that caters to echoes. For my money, the film’s only slight scares come in the form of overbearing silence, which periodically increase with each passing second. The things that go bump in the night are accompanied by what feels like the morgue’s internal heartbeat, and this builds the suspense appropriately, before Hannah pops up every once in a while to capitalize. In fact, I would’ve been fine without any kind of musical score for the movie, as these sounds more than articulate the tension that is so thick you must cut it with a knife.

NEGATIVES

– Amateur camera work that hinders any kind of horror impact. Each time Hannah appears on-screen, we are confined to these ugly looking shaky camera effects that not only make it difficult to focus on the telegraphing of each sequence, but also give the film an overwhelming layer of cheap production value to its effects work. I was hoping that this was only a temporary inclusion at the beginning of the film, during an exorcism sequence, but unfortunately it stays with Hannah like the worst kind of cheap odor.

– Gaping plot holes. Early on in the film, the screenplay shows us Hannah’s capabilities with telekinesis, and it makes every other scene of conflict with Megan not make sense because of how this talent never comes into play with our central protagonist. This is a cliche that always drives me nuts in horror films, as an antagonist appropriately loses their powers when it matters the most, treating the audience like idiots who haven’t been paying attention up to this point. The only way to fix this is to give Megan a reason why Hannah is keeping her alive, but it sadly never materializes, thanks to minimal character development that is sparse even for forgettable B-movie horror characters.

– There is absolutely zero reason for this film to be rated R, considering the presentation constantly limits the payoff. The violence is never detected because of the shaky cam, there’s no nudity considering Hannah is naked for almost the entirety of the movie, and there’s not one instance of adult language that ever invades our first grade dialogue. Very few horror films anymore attain the coveted R-rating, and it’s sad that “The Possession of Hannah Grace” does nothing to enhance its story by receiving this rare gift.

– What an ugly looking film. The daytime scenes have this dreary cinematography quality that made me have to squint every time I needed to focus on a visual matter. Likewise, the scenes where something is going on in the background are constantly out-of-focus, providing emphasis for just how much time and care was put into such an important project. This all pales in comparison however, to Sony’s usual lack of subliminal advertising. Yes, we once again have Sony computer screens that adorn the many investigation scenes in the movie. In general, it’s vomit behind every corner, leading overall to one of the weaker visual presentations of 2018.

– Horrible acting and character direction. As I mentioned above, there is limited character exposition throughout the film, but even if that weren’t the case, the poor work of this nameless, faceless cast does itself zero favors in carving out people we can truly get behind. I feel bad calling her out alone, but Shay Mitchell is in control of roughly 90% of this film, so the blame mostly falls on her. Mitchell can’t act her way out of a paper bag, refusing to ever channel even a shred of believable emotion to these paranormal experiences that are happening to her. Hannah’s dead body getting up to walk is reacted by Mitchell like she just stubbed her toe, telling you everything we’re going to get in terms of versatile performances. Likewise, the supporting cast lack personalities or presence, making them every bit as forgettable as the 1984 Democratic nominee.

– Not an exorcism film. Don’t be fooled in the slightest by the trailers for this movie; this one is a slasher movie that just happens to feature a possessed woman. Cementing this manipulative direction, the scene that is usually the climax of any possession movie happens in the opening five minutes of the movie, and what follows never comes close to even that heavily borrowed sequence from other, better possession movies. I have never seen a possession movie where the possessed have telekinetic powers without even touching them, and this evident feeling gave me an idea that this movie was re-written at the last minute to accommodate a direction that feels foreign to everything else in its clutches.

– Am I on drugs? I asked this question frequently during the editing of this movie, which feels like it oversteps boundaries to limit this to 81 minutes. Scenes that feel like a long struggle is coming, are surprisingly put away quite easily, aggressive cutting in between these scenes of important dialogue restrict us from ever building chemistry between any two respective characters, and there’s never any form of consistency to etch out this editor’s specific style. It all remains constantly spontaneous, keeping the film confined as a series of scenes, instead of one cohesive unit that moves together.

My Grade: 3/10 or F-

The House That Jack Built

Directed By Lars Von Trier

Starring – Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman

The Plot – USA in the 1970s. We follow the highly intelligent Jack (Dillon) over a span of 12 years and are introduced to the murders that define Jack’s development as a serial killer. We experience the story from Jack’s point of view, while he postulates each murder is an artwork in itself. As the inevitable police intervention is drawing nearer, he is taking greater and greater risks in his attempt to create the ultimate artwork. Along the way we experience Jack’s descriptions of his personal condition, problems and thoughts through a recurring conversation with the unknown Verge, a grotesque mixture of sophistry mixed with an almost childlike self-pity and psychopathic explanations.

Rated R for strong disturbing violence/sadistic behavior, grisly images, adult language, and nudity

POSITIVES

– While I certainly have my displeasures from Von Trier as a director, there’s no mistaking the artistic merits that he brings to an otherwise 70’s B-movie homage that the film is enveloped in. Aside from Lars variety of scene-appropriate lenses that gives the film a constant air of unnerving nature, he brings with along an artistic side of brutality that many directors are afraid to glorify for fear of backlash. This makes Von Trier certainly someone who always fully commits to his projects, and no matter how you feel about the final cut of his films, you have to admire his maverick method of filmmaking that garners with it an indulgence of the unorthodox.

– Role of a lifetime for Dillon. This is certainly a one man show, and Matt keeps the focus on him by emitting this calm-yet-deranged serial killer who is unlike anyone he has portrayed before. Jack’s bone-chilling blank stare is only surpassed by the ferociously calculated measures he takes in subduing his prey. Likewise, I also enjoyed seeing a killer who suffers from O.C.D, and it certainly made for some poignant predicaments that only add to the unfurling tension in every scene. Dillon puts an unmistakable stamp of personality on the title character, balancing this dynamic of menace and intrigue for the character that never falters throughout nearly two-and-a-half hours of screen time.

– Violence turns to symbolism. Aside from these graphically violent scenes, that were incredibly blunt and closely shot to keep you from ever looking away, there is an underlying narrative from history that the film does play off appropriately, to those paying attention. Jack clearly represents Dante, the infamous Italian poet, and the film serves as a representation from arguably his most important poem “The Divine Comedy”. Through the many steps of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, this intended direction finally became evident to me, and being that I was the lone person in my theater who enjoyed the hell out of “Mother”, I too took great pleasure in another modern day narrative of a popular religious fable.

– Many people in my theater were complaining about the tonal inconsistencies in the film, but I found the humorous side to the violence and on-going narrative to be more than appropriate in mirroring the material. Jack has this uncanny interaction with people that truly shows the stupidity associated with the human race, and it allows us these welcome moments of release in laughter, after these devastating scenes of impactful macabre. Because of this, I think the film has more appeal when you’re watching it with a large group of friends who can bounce reactions off of one another, instead of sitting down alone for a film that limits the ability for the lunacy of the material to carry over. This showed me that even as pretentious of a director as Lars often is, he’s not afraid to poke fun when it’s required.

– From a serial killer perspective, very few films even rattle the surface of this one, in terms of depth for the psychological stance of the character. Broken up in five meaningful chapters to fruitfully fill in the gaps of how his killing has evolved, the film invests time and layers to cracking the very ambiguity of killers that deserves more conclusions than just saying “They were born that way”. This aspect is without a doubt my favorite of the film, and even with all of the food-for-thought provided, we feel like the complexity of Jack never suffers because of it, leaving plenty of poignancy in the his past BEFORE the film that could use a prequel of its own.

NEGATIVES

– Lars “Pretentious” Von Trier. Has there ever been a director who is up his own ass like Lars? That trend continues in “The House That Jack Built”, as the film not only breaks off on these insanely long diatribes for Lars to comment on many of the world’s current day problems, which is interesting considering the film takes place in the 70’s when none of these issues were prominent in the world, but the director even halts progression of the film midway through the second act to show clips from three of his previous movies. This is on a whole other level than being egotistic, and Von Trier’s overindulgence of himself is his own worst enemy when it comes to the stories he tries to convey.

– Horrendous pacing. For the first hour of this movie, I was very much glued to the screen, as the first two incidents of Jack’s story pushes us right along in keeping up the fluidity and entertainment factor for the film. Then in the second act, it feels like the consistency of the pacing reaches sluggish levels, suddenly feeling like the incidents don’t play as much of a role in the conversation piece that Von Trier leaves this movie for. In addition to this, the film’s quest to feel like twelve years over the trail of this movie feels unfulfilled, never showing visual aging or a feeling in the values of storytelling that ever makes it feel like a year, let alone twelve have passed.

– Redundant soundtrack. I love “Fame” from David Bowie as much as anyone else, but Jesus Christ how many times did this song need to be played throughout the film? It’s nice to know that one song was constantly on repeat on Lars Ipod, and what’s even more annoying is that it adds no context outside of being a song from the 70’s. I will give credit to the….well credits, as it may be the most convenient context to “Hit the Road Jack” that I’ve ever heard.

– Convoluted dialogue. When I say I could easily trim thirty minutes of this film from the stuffy atmosphere of the narration alone, I mean it. So often during the film does the same visual show, or the same line of character exposition beaten us over the head until we’re screaming it ourselves. The production team must think pretty low of its audience, because the last time a sentence was repeated this much to me, I was in first grade, and the bladder control I maintained through both sits made them too irresistible not to compare for this negative.

– This is the first film that Von Trier split into two halves, so as to focus more prominently on the editing. And while that may be the intention, the finished product makes for Von Trier’s arguably worst edited movie to date. Abrupt cuts in the middle of important dialogue feels like a distraction, continuity between cuts couldn’t be further from cohesive, and there are sometimes far too many cuts for one particular sequence. In the action genre, this would be considered vertigo, but the over-anxiousness of a finger firmly pressed on the edit button is something that creates enough problems for the progression of this movie; mainly that it’s complicating matters with a screenplay that is otherwise played straight from the hip, in terms of its structure.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Directed By Phil Johnston and Rich Moore

Starring – John C Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot

The Plot – Taking place six years after saving the arcade from Turbo’s vengeance, the Sugar Rush arcade cabinet has broken, forcing Ralph (Reilly) and Vanellope (Silverman) to travel to the Internet via the newly-installed Wi-Fi router in Litwak’s Arcade to retrieve the piece capable of saving the game.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Artistic elevation of the new expanding world. As to where the first film riveted us with pixelated 8-bit goodness, with an air of modern rendering, this sequel as well captivates our imagination, depicting the internet as a creative backdrop to all of the world’s business. While probably not always true, the internet in the film is presented as this beautiful place that stretches as far as your vision can go, blending a strong combination of detailed layers and colorful textures, to make for a visual presentation that is second to none, in terms of animated properties this year. Likewise, the blending of old school hand-drawn animation for characters like Sonic the Hedgehog blend wonderfully with the modern day sheik of computer style animation, that make up a majority of characters within the film, and prove that this is a universe with all kind of shapes, colors, sizes, and even dimensions.

– That surprisingly responsible third act. While this film certainly isn’t stretching the boundaries of its PG rating of limitations, the script does take on enough dark and gritty themes to responsibly educate its youth demographic on the hazards of the internet, personal insecurities, and the rules of friendship. It’s in this poignant punch of material where the film’s tone ages gracefully, packing an unexpected psychological antagonist for the characters and film that I didn’t see coming, and one that proves Ralph can garner substance to go hand-in-hand with its captivating visual features.

– Strong ensemble voice work. Reilly and Silverman once again tap into a lot of raw energy and versatility in the stretching of their range capacity, but this time they’re asked to channel more of that impeccable rapport that made so much of the third act in the previous movie the film’s strong point. Thankfully, the consistency remains prominent, and the two pack a sweet punch combo of chemistry that will make you laugh, cry, or lose yourself to the way they live and breathe these animated properties. As for new additions, the work of Gadot as a badass street racer is one that carves out an unlikely outline for little girls who don’t fit into the Disney princess mold, and Taraji P Henson’s sassy familiarity is nearly unrecognizable as the blue-skinned, energetic Yes.

– Clever sight gags and dialogue quips that breathe intelligence. Where a film like this gets it right over a movie like “The Emoji Movie” is that it takes something as universal as the internet and carves out these ideas within the element that many can draw onto for how familiar it all feels. Some of the film’s best work in this regard engages in pop-up annoyances, auction bidding, and my personal favorite: the Disney expanding universe. On the latter, the interaction of superheroes and Star Wars characters makes for one of those once in a lifetime possibilities, but it’s the Disney princess’s themselves who steal the show, etching out a layer of social commentary for how outdated some of their ideals come across in 2018. It all makes for something that doesn’t settle for being just scenery for the narrative, and brings with it no shortage of witty material that tickled my funny bone more times than not.

– One spectacular musical number. While the Wreck-It Ralph franchise isn’t like other Disney properties, in that it never has to sing about its emotions, there is one number in this movie that I thought fit wonderfully from Vanellope’s downtrodden disposition and Disney princess recommendations. What’s even more important is that it’s actually a good song that does a double service deed of authenticity, depending on how you choose to look at it. The first is for Disney’s usual sporadic lyrics, which sometimes are all over the place in terms of topical consistency, and the second is keeping with the tradition of catchy chorus lines, that will have you humming it long after you leave the theater. Silverman won’t be confused for a singer any time soon, but her infectious vocal deliveries combined with the absurdity of the lyrics, make for three delightful minutes that I greatly enjoyed.

– Perfect timing for a particular cameo. I won’t ruin anything for this person popping up, but when you consider what the entertainment media world has been through in the last two weeks, the appearance of a familiar face to the silver screen feels transcendent for how incredible it played hand-in-hand with this person’s real life passing. It’s only for around two seconds long, but only proves how much of a lasting memory and permanent stamp on pop culture this person made on us all. You truly couldn’t have timed this one any better, and its subtlety as being the only real life person in this world of fantasy proves that they will live on forever.

– I commend a movie where the setting itself is secondary to the characters, and it’s clear that the evolving and straineous friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is what plays front-and-center here. As the film progresses from internet arrival, to money-making campaigns, to a King Kong inspired final conflict, you come to understand that everything we’ve been shown ranges around the adventures of these two people, and I loved that the film, despite educating its youth on the internet, never strayed too far away from the unveiled layers of these two people. An example of this done wrong is in the National Lampoon’s Vacation sequels, in that the Griswolds became almost an experiment of the environments they were being introduced to. Here, Ralph and Vanellope constantly bring the focus home. If they didn’t, the moving closing moments of the third act wouldn’t register, and thankfully they did.

NEGATIVES

– Age boundaries with the humor. While the comedy worked around 70% of the time for me, I feel like it’s because of my age why I was able to grasp onto the clever material with so much success. I noticed in my theater that most of the quips were going over the kids heads, and I think that lack of crossover appeal between age groups may limit Ralph Breaks the Internet’s final judgement. Because of such, I would recommend this more as a home video kind of experience for kids, as the theater is designed to test their attention in ways that isn’t as easy as sitting in front of the tube.

– I hate the title of this movie. I know, it’s stupid to complain about something so minimally important, but in my eyes a title can tell you everything that’s clever and important about a movie, and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is in the shadows of a much more encapsulating title. “Ralph WRECKS the Internet” not only tells you everything that’s to be expected, but also keeps the consistency of its predecessor, that was short, sweet and simple. If you watch the first trailer, even Disney agrees, when Yes asks Ralph why they don’t just call it “Ralph Wrecks the Internet”, during a scene that isn’t even in the final cut of the film.

– Sloppiness during the first act. It’s strange to speak of a movie that gets better as it progresses, but that’s what you have here. The first thirty minutes of this movie not only feel very rushed to me, but also limit the kind of proper character exposition needed to pull you into its new conflict. This didn’t happen for me until about halfway into the film, once the focus drifts away from the internet and rests on its two central protagonists. As guilty is an out of place exposition line requiring a flashback, that felt completely out of place compared to the rest of the film. This to me is the definition of lazy writing, and there were certainly much more easier ways to work this into the script than halting the progression of our current day narrative.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-